Both autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are general terms describing a complex group of disorders related to brain development. They include varying degrees of difficulty with nonverbal and verbal communication as well as social interaction and repetitive behaviors. All of the autism disorders are included within ASD and this includes the previously distinct subtypes such as Asperger syndrome, autistic disorder, and childhood disintegrative disorder.

ASD may also involve motor coordination difficulties, intellectual disability, and physical health or attention issues. Some people with ASD will excel in art, math, music, or visual skills. This condition is linked to early brain development but symptoms usually appear at two to three years old.

What Causes Autism?

Although experts don’t know the specific cause of autism, they believe it is due to abnormalities in brain function or structure. Many families show a family history of autism or other related disabilities, supporting its genetic basis. Experts haven’t identified a single gene that plays a role, but they are looking for irregular genetic code segments. Some children seem to be born susceptible to it but there is no single trigger. Some researchers are looking into the possibility that an unstable gene cluster interferes with brain development and causes autism. Others are look at other factors such as issues during delivery or pregnancy and environmental factors.

Risk Factors of Autism

Risk Factors


Family Inheritance

Families that have a child suffering from ASD have a higher risk of a second child developing the disorder. In addition relatives (including parents) of children with ASD may have minor issues or behaviors associated with the condition.

Sex of a Child

Boys have a risk four times that of girls for developing ASD.

Extremely Preterm Infants

Babies that are born earlier than 26 weeks might have an increased risk.

Other Problems

Children who have certain medical conditions will have an increased risk of ASD or similar symptoms. Some of these related medical conditions include fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Tourette syndrome, and Rett syndrome.

Symptoms of Autism

Some children will develop ASD during their early infancy while others take several years to show symptoms. Every child will have a unique group of symptoms as well as severity.

Key Symptoms

Having problems with social interactions and relationships

  • Doesn’t respond to his name
  • Prefers to play alone
  • Seems unaware of other people’s feelings and can’t express his own
  • Doesn’t point at objects to share the interest
  • Is inappropriately disruptive, aggressive, or passive

Having difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication

  • Poor eye contact
  • Little to no facial expression
  • Delayed speech or loss of ability to say sentences or words
  • Can’t begin or continue a conversation
  • Has an abnormal rhythm or tone
  • Repeats phrases or words verbatim but can’t use them
  • Doesn’t understand simple directions or questions

Unusual repetitive behaviors

  • Has repetitive movements including hand-flapping, spinning, or rocking
  • Develops specific rituals
  • Doesn’t like change
  • Constantly moves
  • Might be fixated on an activity or object
  • Fascinated by details (like a toy car’s spinning wheels)

Other Related/Associated Medical Conditions

Related Medical Conditions


Genetic Disorders

Some with autism suffer from genetic conditions affecting brain development such as chromosome 15 duplication syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Angelman syndrome, and Fragile X syndrome. Single gene disorders may affect certain people with ASD.

Seizure Disorders

Some people with autism also have seizure disorders such as epilepsy and this is more common in those with intellectual disabilities. These seizure types usually begin during early adolescence or childhood.

Sensory Processing Problems

Many autistic people may problems processing and integrating various sensory information including movement, tastes, smells, sounds, and/or sights.


Pica is eating non-food items. While this is normal for all children between 18 and 24 months, some autistic people will keep eating paint chips, chalk, clay, dirt, or similar items.

Sleep Problems

Autistic people have sleep dysfunction.

Gastrointestinal (GI) Problems

Pain induced by GI problems can result in behavioral changes like rocking, head banging and so on or aggression or self-injury.

When to See a Doctor

Most children with ASD will show at least some delayed development by the time they are one year old. You should always talk to your doctor about concerns as early treatment is the best way to fight developmental issues. If you feel that your child is showing signs of delayed development, then contact your doctor and he may suggest developmental testing.

Treatments for Autism

  • Educational therapies: Those with ASD will usually respond well to educational programs that are highly structured and include specialists as well as multiple activities.
  • Communication and behavioral therapies: Some programs will focus on reducing possible behavior issues while teaching new skills while others teach how to communicate and act within social situations.
  • Medications: There are medications that treat the symptoms such as antidepressants for anxiety but none treat autism as a whole.
  • Managing other medical conditions: You should talk to your child’s doctor about treating related medical issues such as stomach problems, limited food preferences, sleep disorders, and epilepsy.

How to Help a Child with Autism 

1. Educate Yourself about Autism

Take the time to learn everything you can about autism including the various signs and levels of severity. Remember that the disorder changes over time and you will need to stay informed and work with your child’s doctor to work on treatment and educational goals. Also be sure that all of your family members know what autism is and what to expect from your child. Plan playdates with other autistic children and their families.

2. Work with Others to Treat Autism

Create a support network made up of family and friends. Ideally this should provide you, your child, and the rest of your family with emotional, social, and practical support in the form of someone to talk to or help you in an emergency. You should also work with teachers and doctors to design your child’s treatment.

3. Learn More about Diet Changes

Some people believe that food allergies may lead to specific autism symptoms. Anytime that you try one of these diets, be sure to talk to your child’s doctor first. One option is the GFCF diet (gluten-free and casein-free). Some parents claim to have seen benefits, but there hasn’t been conclusive research to support it.

4. Assess Your Child's Need for Medication

You won’t find a medication specifically for autism, but there are medications to treat the symptoms. Children with autism may take anti-depressants to help with OCD behaviors, depression, or anxiety related to the condition. Some doctors may recommend selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or antipsychotic medications depending on your child’s symptoms.

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